Young Nebraska scientists built a satellite, it's now headed to space

March 15, 2024, 5 a.m. ·

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There is a lot of Nebraska on the International Space Station so far this year, with three research projects happening in different ways. We’ve followed one of these projects for a couple years, a group of young scientists creating a small satellite that’s scheduled to be on a launch to the Space Station next week.

We first saw the Big Red Satellite team two years ago, when a couple dozen mostly teenagers were working in the morning summer heat in a barren area of Innovation Campus in Lincoln. Their mission? Assemble, inflate and launch a high altitude balloon, something a little bigger than the students holding it, to test scientific equipment they’ll eventually send to space in a small satellite. (Watch a "What If..." series story about the balloon launch)

This Big Red Satellite team was a couple years into their project at this point. With more than a year of work ahead. Next week they’ll watch another launch in person. A rocket taking the results of their efforts to the International Space Station.

Karen Stelling will be in Florida watching the Kennedy Space Center launch, along with a lot of the students. She’s a University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering professor who has advised the Big Red Sat team from the start.

“I think that'll be very exciting to see that and to know that all that work is paying off,” Stelling says.

It started in 2020. Lincoln tech entrepreneur John McClure wanted to inspire the next generation of astronauts and aerospace engineers. He approached UNL about working with NASA and sponsoring a team. They recruited junior and senior high school students, plus UNL students with similar interests. The group decided to build a CubeSat to study perovskites.

A CubeSat is basically a small metal square box that holds experiments. Four by four inches for the BigRedSat group. Most states have had a NASA CubeSat project, but this is the first for Nebraska and a rare project involving secondary school students. The CubeSat with the experiment is put on a rocket, sent to the space station, then essentially tossed into space to orbit for a few months.

“They are satellites that are functional, and they send data back to the Earth,” Stelling explains. “The whole program was started where, in some rockets, they were finding in different places in the nose or different places, they had some open space that they could tuck in something, and they could engage students in the communities to actually engage with space. It's almost like a Pez dispenser. You put these boxes in a deployer that has a spring at the end. Then when it's in space, it just shoots them out like you're shooting Pez’s out.”

“It's small, but it can carry very interesting experimental payloads.”

As for perovskites…these are a new type of solar cell in development. They’re smaller and lighter, so NASA is interested in these for future space projects.

“The unique thing about perovskites is that they may be able to collect reflected light and use that as energy,” says Tiegan Gunning Ries, who started with BigRedSat as a Lincoln High student and is now at UNL. “So that would provide a really useful alternative to current solar panels and be very helpful to NASA's current energy crisis. And it's also a really unique thing that a lot of the people on the team agreed would be interesting when we were coming up with a topic.”

The BigRedSat team has met Saturday mornings virtually or in a UNL engineering lab for a while. With a long list of things to work on. Calculating the cost of sending data back to earth? Finding someone to supply materials? How do you mount the small perovskite cells and assemble the CubeSat? What’s the orbit? Can the payload withstand vibration? Lots of tests along the way. Plus it’s expensive, so the team raises funds, often with students like Elsa Meyer, who served as BigRedSat student president, as presenters.

“Some people are just very interested in different aspects of it because we have a lot of aspects to our program,” Meyer says. “One that we are getting experience in the aerospace field that you wouldn't be able to get in high school because we're actually participating. We're working with NASA. We're setting up a satellite. Really, we're actually setting up a satellite, not just learning about it. But then there's also the part where we get to participate in public speaking and building a team. Planning a payload and coming up with all that is another part of it.”

“We could be doing research that actually helps start a new kind of solar cell movement that'll maybe help us get more clean energy,” Meyers adds.

Last December the BigRedSat team gathered on another Saturday morning in their lab space. A couple rooms that are cluttered in a way that tells you things are happening here. They posed for photos with the CubeSat they were about to hand over to NASA to send to the International Space Station. And while sitting around a large work table, take turns reflecting on what they’ve done.

“I find it all very cool after all these years for it to be done, complete.”

“I started this in high school and now that I’m in college it’s like, I’m still here. This has helped me so much. No, this has really changed my life.”

“You look at all of this, and this is science. This is development, engineering. We’ve gone through it and we’re here. And we’re going to space.”

BigRedSat isn’t the only Nebraska thing in space this year.

In January, a launch carried a miniature version of a surgical robot. It was created by Virtual Incision, a company co-founded by UNL Engineering professor Shane Farritor. They ran tests to see how effectively surgeons using a console at the company’s Lincoln headquarters could do tasks with the robotic device remotely on the Space Station. (Watch a "What If..." series story about Virtual Incision)

Next week’s planned launch will also carry a spool of material for 3-D printing. UNO biomechanics professor Jorge Zuniga has done extensive work on 3-D printing of prosthetic devices. Now he’s testing how 3-D printing works in space, with astronauts printing test squares from the material. (Watch a "What If..." series story about UNO Biomechanics)

Surgeon Michael Jobst, with Virtual Incision co-founder Shane Farritor watching, operates the MIRA surgical robot remotely on the International Space Station (courtesy photo)